Challenge and Response. (V) Onward to — What?

Let us suppose, then, that a party set up very soon can, within the space of two years, win some success at municipal level in one or two provinces. Without much funding, but with considerable diligence and a clear plan of action, it can take control of half a dozen middle-sized towns and become a major part of the opposition in a couple of cities. Then what?
Well, there is such a thing as municipal socialism. The purpose of such a party would be to show that socialism could be put into practice. It is absolutely vital, given the history of South African socialism which is one of almost uninterrupted and unbridgeable gap between theory and practice, to demonstrate that this is possible. It would be almost easier to do such a thing on a small scale than on a large one, because on a smaller scale disastrous, irreversible calamity would not actually cost lives.
Municipal socialism entails the redistribution of wealth within the municipality in order to promote a better life for the poor. However, it also entails using the municipality to uplift the poor psychologically and ideologically — it is, conceptually, the idea that, simply using the basic tools of service delivery on the most primitive level, but coupling this with democracy and consultation, it is possible to promote the idea of socialism among the people involved. Show people that it is possible to connect their houses to electricity, or to provide them with the tools and skills needed to expand their houses and grow food in their municipal allotments (collectively organised, even if individually worked) and then point out that this is only possible through the cooperation of the people. Take the rich people who provided the funding to these places and show them what their money has made possible. Build support for the idea that collective work and investment can lead, ultimately, to collective benefit. Then promote wider collective activities. Challenge the notion that everything must be rooted in individual greed. Something of the kind has been promoted in the Venezuelan cooperative movement — whether or not it works well in Venezuela, there are places where such things have worked — and why not South Africa?
However, while the immediate goal is to improve the lives of the people in the municipality, the long-term one is to show that it is practical to pursue socialism within such a context, and therefore, to show people in other municipalities that municipal socialism, collective work within a rule-bound and financially constrained environment, is better than either outsourcing everything to big business, or imposing everything from a centralised municipal office. We need collectivity, we need sharing, we need democracy, and we need it now.
This can then be used as a tool with which to annoy the capitalist structures in larger municipalities where the party has no power, and ultimately, to discredit the other parties ruling those municipalities; even though the press may ignore it and the neoliberal parties may deny it, if you take people out to municipalities where things are working and show them what can be done, they will believe their own eyes.
This depends, ultimately, on proper management. The party must continually monitor its own performance within municipalities which it controls, and within municipalities where it is the opposition — to ensure that what it does works as well as possible, that money is not wasted, that time is not wasted, and that every possible opportunity to promote the party and discredit the opposing parties is taken. There have to be disciplinary procedures, there has to be internal supervision. This is most easily done when there is democracy, and when there is a lot of enthusiasm for the principles of the party. In a sense, a socialist party has to be a fanatical party — which is a problem, since too much fanaticism and principles get jettisoned. Curiously, there has to be a degree of competition between the municipalities which the party controls, and there has to be a degree of subservience to authority — but not too much. It would require a nice balancing act on the part of the leadership, who would have to be powerful enough to order the elements of the party around, but not arrogant enough to order them around unnecessarily.
There need, therefore, to be excellent open channels of communication along with democracy — which is not surprising. In short, the party has to be everything which today’s South Africa is not, simply in order to succeed, as a preparation for the 2014 national elections.
Socialism is not a theoretical issue. It is a pragmatic concern. This is forgotten by many people who commit themselves to socialism as an abstract issue. Socialism has to be concerned with sharing the wealth — but the purpose of sharing the wealth is to ensure that there is wealth to share. It is, therefore, about knowing what is going on now and knowing what you wish to do next. The purpose of socialist planning is to ensure that you can distribute a continually growing source of wealth more equally than can be done without planning, and this is a difficult task. It is easy to distribute wealth randomly. It is also easy to help the rich do what they already want to do — to make themselves even richer at the expense of the poor.
Very well. Suppose that these problems could be overcome and a disciplined, theoretically sound and enthusiastic democratic socialist-oriented party created. Let us imagine a party which has won a modest victory in municipal elections in one province, and a less substantial success in another province. How could that, in three years, be turned into anything more substantial?
The political problems of administration — of coordinating different centres of power and preventing them from fragmenting the organisation, the bane of the Left’s existence — would be enormous but not insuperable. If everyone had their eye on the long-term goal, namely, that of introducing democratic socialism to South Africa, and devoted their short-term attention to actions which facilitated (or did not obstruct) that long-term goal, this could be resolved. In that case, what would be happening would be that in the municipalities where this party was in charge, structures would be ostentatiously set up to transform the lives of the poor. With the support of the municipality itself, there would be street committees and ward organisations along the lines of the M-plan, the purpose for which would be twofold: to eliminate unemployment by expanding very cheap, basic service delivery and in parallel to greatly reduce the crime rate by establishing vigilante groups under the auspices of the municipal structures, but along with this, to promote the ideals of the collective good.
It’s easy to see, in any municipality, that a small amount of work could make a huge difference to the lives of the people. Fill in the holes in the roads. Plant trees. Help people build small additions to their ramshackle homes — even as little as providing sandbags to shield tin shanties from the worst heat of the sun. Dig drainage ditches. And, above all, whatever is provided, maintain it, and set up monitoring committees to see where the problems lie. Decentralise information-gathering and even planning, but retain central authority over decision-making. You don’t need to pay big corporations to get any of this stuff done.
In the end you would have an example for much of the country to follow. Evangelise that example. Wherever you have a councillor in a ward, however hostile the rest of the Council might be, that councillor could try to do something similar. Build cooperative organisations along the lines of what is going on in Venezuela — it may not be socialism in itself, but it is certainly a potential challenge to the kind of passive public subservience which neoliberal capitalism requires.
But there is also the political side. Once the public in a substantial area decided that the socialist party was more on their side than any other, this would provide a bountiful opportunity for recruitment. This in turn could lead to more political activity in local rural areas, but it might also lead to opportunities in further-flung regions. The street committees and municipal organisation might provide delegates to confer with like-minded people elsewhere and show them how it was happening.
As a result, the ossified municipal structures of South Africa might become almost irrelevant as a new life began to flourish within the dried, dead skeleton of what was once municipal democracy. (This was, in part, what happened in the early 1980s, but it never succeeded as properly as it should have, partly because the struggle was driven by people who did not properly know what they were doing, partly because of gangsterism and opportunism, and partly because of state repression. If this kind of activity is better planned, it could happen more quickly, more effectively and more completely the second time.) Most importantly, if a councillor were repudiated by his or her ward (if necessary, driven out by non-violent force) then, unlike the situation in provincial or national government, the requirement is that there must be a by-election. CoPe failed to take proper advantage of this and therefore lost momentum; in contrast, a steady stream of municipal election victories by a socialist party could create the impression (true or false) of an unstoppable force.
As a result, the membership of the party could quickly rise into six figures. With 100 000 active members or more, and with municipal structures subsidising some of the party’s activities (albeit never corruptly — we are talking about senior party officials hired to do real work, and legitimate municipal activities the success of which would be attributed to the party), and with a solid grassroots support base among the non-members in three or four provinces — people aware of the existence of the party, prepared to speculate on whether it was a good idea, and hence potentially willing to come to rallies or read literature — it would be possible to take the struggle to a higher level than the municipal.
As a result, in the 2014 election it would be possible to set sights on control of provinces. Advance planning would be essential. The objective would be to take at least one, possibly two, provinces — the obvious candidates would be the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, with an outside possibility of the North-West. These are provinces where villages and small towns dominate, as opposed to the urban centres where the ANC and DA would play Punch and Judy before the spotlights of the media. Of course the party would be on the national ballot, and should be present, nominally, in other provinces — yet the organisational focus should be on winning provincial power. Above all, the party should deliberately scorn Parliamentary representation, not because it despised the institution of Parliament, but because Parliament in its present form could not possibly provide any real focus for the party’s activities; it would seek representation there purely for propaganda purposes.
It might not do brilliantly; it might merely replicate CoPe’s success (though with much better long-term prospects). However, given better organisation, a real popular basis and genuine accomplishments, something far more would seem likely. If it instead gained control of two provinces and won 20% of the national vote (not altogether impossible) then the party would have dramatically changed the political situation. This would certainly push the ANC below 60% and raise the spectre of actual defeat in its leadership’s eyes. It might even precipitate a further split in the ANC, for there would be some who would want collaboration with more overtly neoliberal organisations and others who would want to radicalise the party in order to compete with the socialists. Such a split, if judiciously handled, might actually lead to socialists taking power — although the danger of becoming the junior partner of a dubious centre-left coalition is obvious.
The point is simply that there is potential for a socialist party beginning now and working hard to put itself into the situation of a real opposition — one eventually capable of becoming a ruling party — and to challenge the institutions of capitalism in South Africa. If it can be done, it should be done. The fact that it is not being done does not show the weakness of socialism. Instead, it displays the utter bankruptcy of our current purportedly leftist leaders.


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